I noticed some of my tomato leaves started turning yellow. I saw this in a few other plots as well. I took my sad leaves home and consulted the internet for some diagnostics.
It appears to not be disease or bug related. Instead: overwatering.
Two things can be contributing to overwatering in our plots:
1. The compost we received in spring was ‘heavy.’ It was mixed with clay, and that clay holds water (and nutrients) very well. So that means it needs less water. I had our original (without compost) soil tested and it was ‘sandy loam’ which is great, but has a hard time holding water and nutrients.
2. I added wood chips to my plot to keep moisture in, but didn’t adjust my water schedule accordingly. Keep that in mind if you have woodchips or weed mats.
What happens from overwatering?
When you overwater, the roots get ‘suffocated.’ It inhibits the uptake of oxygen and nutrients. If prolonged, it can also cause root rot. To fix it: let the soil dry out and water more sparingly. Also cultivate the top soil to aerate it.
Is clay soil good or bad?
It has a lot of benefits: it holds water, meaning we can cut back which is great for the drought. It also holds nutrients really well so you don’t have to fertilize as often, and when you do fertilize it lasts a lot longer. Lastly, roots like clay soil because they can get a firm foundation (unlike sandy soils that shift all the time).
The bad & how to fix it: it compacts much easier than sandy soils and can suffocate roots. Cultivate the soil to improve aeration. Cultivating the dirt is just using those hand-rakes to turn up the dirt a little and mix air in. And a tip from fellow gardener Rusty, cultivating the soil disrupts a lot of the pest cycles.
I’ve been keeping my eye out for this year’s free compost giveaway that Recology has done in the past. This year it’s on Earth Day in San Carlos from 10am to 2pm. The address is 333 Shoreway Road. Here’s a .pdf flyer about the event.
While poking around on the recology and rethinkwaste websites, I found out that we can get free compost year-round! You can get 2 bags per visit, 2 visits per week. I’m definitely going to do this, this upcoming week. I’ll let you know how it goes. Here’s more info. On the flyer you will see they ask for a bill or ID card – they just want proof that you’re a resident.
I’ve also emailed them to ask if they would be willing to drop a truckload off at our garden. I’ll let you know if they get back to me
Herbs seem easy compared to tomatoes, but I’ve managed to mess them up. Below are some tips to help new gardeners.
- Basil grows really well. When it starts to flower, cut them off to make it continue leafy growth. These will die at the end of fall.
- Oregano is also easy to grow. Mine manage to live through the winter, even with minimal care. Cut off flowers to make them bushier.
- Rosemary is also easy. I made the mistake of digging up my first rosemary plant in winter and composting it. Don’t do that! They last through the winter and get quite large. Pick a good spot for it, like a corner or even in a pot, since you won’t be moving it.
- Peppermint and Spearmint should be grown in pots! The plant might only get so big, but those roots are spreading 5 or 6 feet out under the ground. These roots are hard to dig up and compete with your other plants for resources.
- Cilantro can grow pretty big. Be sure to cut the flowers and take frequent cuttings so the stems don’t get woody. (Big and fat). I do not remember if cilantro lasts through the winter.
Soil is important. Very important. It needs the right nutrients and you have to water it properly based on it’s drainage qualities. I tested my soil in 2011 with Dr. Good Earth. I’m guessing it’s similar to most plots, but it’s hard to tell what previous owners have put into it.
Test Soil with Dr. Good Earth
I’ve attached the report that I got from the soil test. I’m very happy with this company and will be testing it again this year ($19.95 for 1 test, or a group discount at $47.95 for 3). The price includes a pre-paid shipping package, which saves a lot of money. The results take 3-4 weeks to be processed. I will be sending mine in during March so I can prepare my soil in April, before I transplant everything.
- My soil is sandy loam – which is one of the best soils for gardening. However, it drains fast, so it needs more watering that other types of soil
- It was deficient in sulfur, iron and a few other nutrients. The report gives dozens of fertilizer suggestions for each nutrient.
- The report explains why each nutrient is important.
Tests from Universities
I’ve read lot of mentions across the internet that state universities often have free soil testing labs. I haven’t been able to find one yet – so if you do, please share it!! I did find one in Massachusetts (see order form) that costs $10 for nutrient testing and $5 extra for organic material testing (how much compost you would need to add). That doesn’t include shipping – so it comes out to be about the same price as Dr. Good Earth.
Also, I’ve seen other people say that CA no longer offers free soil tests due to budgetary issues. See this thread on GardenWeb that talks about CA several responses down.
Tests that haven’t worked
I’ve used the $4 NPK testers that you get at Home Depot – they are little colored tubes with colored pellets to drop in. I tested the same soil samples 3 times and got incredibly different results each time. I’ve concluded those are not accurate or reliable and not worth the money.
I’ve also used a Plantsmart device (currently $18 on Amazon, instead of the list price of $40), which measures sun exposure, temperature and water levels. It graphs them out and I like it because I’m a data nerd. However, if you want to use it to test soil nutrients you need a paid subscription to the Plantsmart service. I signed up for it and compared it to the results from Dr. Good Earth – and they didn’t match (but they were much closer than the Home Depot test tubes). I wouldn’t recommend using it for testing soil nutrients, but I do love it for the sun/temperature/water graphs
We have a lot of microclimates in the Bay Area. This affects the types of plants that thrive in our gardens. It’s why the Russian River grows the best Pinots.
Understanding Growing Degree Units (GDU)
Growing Degree Days (sometimes called Growing Degree Days) is a measurement of heat accumulation. If your high temperature for the day is 80 and the low is 60, you’ll have slightly less heat accumulation than if your high is 80 and your low is 70. For in-depth details, check out GDD on wikipedia.
From April 1 to November 30, we had the following Growing Degree Units:
- Historical average: 3274
- 2012: 3046
- 2011: 2665
- 2010: 2688
- 2009: 2980
- 2008: 3280
As you can see, we’ve been well below the average the past few years. 2012 was quite a bit warmer than 2011 and I definitely could tell my tomatoes were happier Here’s to hoping for a good growing season
I’ve experimented over the years, attended gardening expos, and done of lot of research online. I still don’t feel like an expert! But I’d like to share what I’ve learned.
Tomatoes like HOT weather
- We don’t get hot hot summers in Belmont, San Francisco, or other Bay Area cities – not like they do in the midwest or the south. But we have a longer growing season, so our tomaotoe start to ripen in late July or even late August and can last through November. In the midwest they harvest in June or July and the plants are gone by September.
- The bigger the tomato, the more heat they need and the longer they take to mature.
- Check the days needed for a tomato to mature, and buy a range of them so you can have them all summer long.
Buy Tomato seeds for ‘cool climates’
My best performers have been Russian variety tomatoes. Here are some of my favorites, as well as some that haven’t worked very well. You can also get a list of cooler climate tomatoes from tomatofest.com.
Days to maturity: 57
Comments: This grew really well and tasted great! It’s my go-to tomato every year.
Days to maturity: 70
Comments: They definitely mature pretty late in the season in our climate, but they are worth it!
Nikolayev Yellow Cherry
Days to Maturity: 70
Comments: It says 70 days to maturity, but it was still one of the first to ripen – and it was also one of the last. The plant produced more tomatoes than I could keep up with! They are super sweet and tasty!
Japanese Black Trifle
Days to maturity: 81
Color: “Black” (purple/brown)
Comments: There weren’t a ton of tomatoes per plant on this one, but they were HUGE. They tasted a bit ‘flat’ to me, but a lot of people say they are fantastic and complex. It’s like wine I suppose Everyone has their own tastes.
Sweet Pea Currant
Days to maturity: 72
Comments: These are actually the size of large peas. They are tedious to pick, but super tasty and cute on salads
Kellogg’s Breakfast - Didn’t do well!
Days to Maturity: 80
Comments: This variety was recommended to me at a tomato festival as one of the best yellow varieties. These didn’t grow very well, they needed a hotter climate I believe. It was also an usually cool summer (2011) in Belmont.
The best places to buy tomato seeds
- Tomatofest.com: I order from here every year and have always been happy with my seeds. Most of my orders have shown up with a surprise seed packet or two in the box
- Seeds of Change: I order from here every year as well. I love their sunflower collections
- All seeds are certified organic
- They arrive is resealable yellow packets – great for saving seeds each year.
- Rare Seeds / Baker Creek Heirloom Seeds (Petaluma Seed Bank)
- They have, by far, the prettiest catalog you’ll get in the mail!
- Organic, heirloom, non-GMO seeds
I’ve been starting my tomato plants from seed for a few years now. I’ve learned a few things over the years that I would like to share.
When to start from seed:
Mid-February to Early March. It will take a week to germinate and then they can grow nice and sturdy over the next 8 weeks. Here’s a few seed starting tips:
- Plant about 20% more seeds than you’ll need since some might not germinate.
- Tomato seedlings need 70-80 degrees to germinate. Some people have warm places to put their seedlings, but I don’t. I bought a heat mat. Here are a couple options I like: windowsill sized mat and full sized mat. These mats don’t have automatic shut offs, so I set mine up with a timer control (and I re-use it during the holidays to automatically turn my xmas tree lights on and off).
- You can start the seeds in peat pots or even homemade pots out of paper (be careful to not let them get moldy as you water them). I’ve seen a few other clever ideas: use recycled milk jugs. Use old orange or grapefruit rinds as bowls because you can plant them right into the next pot you use, or right into the ground (I have no idea if they mold or cause imbalances to pH levels).
How to care for seedlings
Your seedlings will need to be warm enough to grow, plenty of light and water.
- If you have a really sunny spot in the house, that should be good enough for your seedlings. I don’t get much sun because of the way my apartment faces, so I had to buy a grow light. The LED grow lights are low power consumption and don’t emit a lot of heat (That’s important or your seedlings will dry out fast). Here’s a 14 watt grow light like the one I have. Tip: I hook up my grow light and heat mat to the programmable timer.
- Set up a very low powered fan to blow on your seedlings after they are a couple weeks old. This does a few things: it keeps them from getting mold and mildew. It also makes them grow stockier, since they have to toughen up to handle the simulated wind. Without it, they can grow tall and ‘leggy’ – and they need help to stand up on their own. To test this last year, I put a fan on one set of seedlings and not another. Sure enough, the ones with wind were much stronger.
- “Pot up” your seedlings. As they grow, you’ll want to transfer them to larger containers. You’ll want ones that are a pretty decent size so the plants don’t get ‘root bound.’ A root bound plant stunts it’s own growth because it doesn’t have room to expand the roots (or so ‘experts’ say on various websites). I used to transplant them to 4″ pots, but found that I had to transplant them again to even bigger pots. So now I move most of them to 3 gallon pots once they outgrow their starter pots. I’ve found they are much cheaper on Amazon (about $1.50 per pot) than home depot ($3-$5 a pot).
Getting ready for the garden – hardening off & transplanting
Hardening off your plants is the process of getting your plants accumulated to the outdoors over about 2 weeks. You start very gradually – setting your plants outside for only 1-2 hours during a warm part of the day but not under full sun (it’s too harsh). Then you gradually increase the plants’ exposure each day. I like to leave them completely outside for the last 48 hours, just to make sure they are adjusting ok before I “shock” them during the transplant process.
- I’ll let you in on a secret: hardening off matters. I’m skeptical of a lot of things, so I like to put everything to the test. I hardened off one set of plants and not another. The ones I hardened off started growing a little stockier (thicker and stronger stems), and the ones indoors kept growing taller (but not thicker). When I transplanted them, the ones that had been hardened off started growing within a week of transplanting. The ones that hadn’t been hardened off had trouble growing, and didn’t perk up for 3-4 weeks after being transplanted.
- Water them really well the day before transplanting, so they have plenty of water to work with during the transplant process.
- Experts say it’s ideal to transplant on an overcast day, later in the afternoon to avoid the harsh sun. However, I’ve transplanted on sunny days as well, and I’m not sure how much of a difference it really makes. I haven’t put it in a side-by-side test.
- Use an organic fertilizer when you transplant as well to help those little plants grow and adjust to their new environment.
- Fun tip: Start saving cooked egg shells now (if they aren’t hard boiled, just boil them in a pot of water). Crush them with a rolling pin and put them in the dirt when you transplant to the garden. The egg shells break down and put calcium in the soil, and the worms in your garden like to eat them as well. Some sources say they repel slugs because it scratches their bodies.
- If you have extra plants, try growing them on your porch (or in my case, the balcony). You will probably want a bigger pot – I have a couple 5 gallon pots for this purpose. Note that smaller fruits would be best for the pots, like cherry tomatoes.
Note: I linked a few products to Amazon off an affiliate account. I only link products that I’ve tried and like. If you have a product that you want to recommend, leave a comment so I can add it in. Any revenue earned off the affiliate link goes to pay for this site.